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Valverde wins Fleche Wallonne for record 5th time

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HUY, Belgium (AP) Alejandro Valverde of Spain won the Fleche Wallonne (Walloon Arrow) for a record fifth time after a fourth straight title in the Belgian classic on Wednesday.

Valverde continued his excellent form with an attack that was unanswered by his rivals 250 meters from the finish in the brutal Mur de Huy, one of cycling’s most difficult climbs.

Daniel Martin of Ireland was second and Dylan Teuns of Belgium completed the podium.

Valverde, who will turn 37 next week, last year became the first rider to win the Fleche Wallonne four times. He also won the race in 2006, 2014 and 2015.

The Spanish rider has been enjoying a great start to the season with victories at the Tour of Andalusia, Tour of Basque Country and Tour of Catalonia.

The Mur de Huy has a 26 percent gradient at its steepest point, and Valverde knows it perfectly. Right from the start of the climb, he remained well-positioned at the front and waited for the right time to surge ahead with a few hundred meters left.

The major spring classics end with Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege race. Valverde will be among the favorites, having already won it three times. The race is run over similarly hilly terrain in southern Belgium.

Valverde dedicates his Liege-Bastogne-Liege win to Scarponi

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LIEGE, Belgium (AP) Spaniard Alejandro Valverde dedicated his win at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic on Sunday to Italian cyclist Michele Scarponi, who died after a collision with a van while training on Saturday at the age of 37.

Valverde caught Irishman Dan Martin about 200 meters (yards) from the end and comfortably beat him in a sprint to the line. Polish rider Michal Kwiatkowski finished in third place, crossing three seconds behind them on the 258-kilometer (160-mile) route.

Valverde is one of the best classics riders in cycling history and his latest win comes four days after winning the Fleche Wallonne (Walloon Arrow) for a record fifth time. Martin was second in that race as well, which was also run over hilly terrain.

Valverde, who turns 37 on Tuesday, has also secured victories at the Tour of Andalusia, Tour of Basque Country and Tour of Catalonia this season. His win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege equaled Italian Moreno Argentin’s tally and is one behind Belgian great Eddy Merckx’s record.

But Valverde’s mind was far away from his own achievements.

“My first words are to dedicate this victory to Michele Scarponi, who was a great friend of mine,” a tearful Valverde said. “My prize money will go to his family.”

A minute’s applause for Scarponi, the Giro d’Italia winner in 2011, was held prior to the start of the race.

Philippe Gilbert wins royal sprint to claim Amstel Gold Race

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VOLKENBURG, Netherlands — Philippe Gilbert’s renaissance continued Sunday as the Belgium champion won a two-man sprint to claim a fourth victory in the Amstel Gold Race classic.

The 34-year-old former world champion, who also won the Tour of Flanders earlier this month, produced a strong final push to catch former winner Michal Kwiatkowski, who launched the sprint with about 300 meters (yards) left.

“He surprised me a little in the sprint, but it was a headwind so I didn’t panic, and I saw I was getting closer and closer, and it was perfect for me in the end,” said Gilbert, who has also won nine stages on the Tour de France, Spanish Vuelta and Italian Giro during his career.

Michael Albasini won the dash for third place.

An early break from a group of a dozen riders highlighted the first hours of the race on the rolling hills of Limburg province but the final battle shaped up with 40 kilometers (25 miles) to go when Tiesj Benoot attacked on the Kruisberg climb, with Gilbert in his wake. Benoot’s efforts were hampered by a mechanical problem and the young Belgian rider was dropped from the leading group.

After former winners Roman Kreuziger and Enrico Gasparotto saw their hopes of victory vanish in a crash, Kwiatkowski managed to join the leaders on the punishing Keutenberg climb with an impressive burst that left Greg Van Avermaet and Alejandro Valverde behind.

With 19 kilometers to go, Kwiatkowski led the seven-man group as they tackled the third and final climb up the Cauberg hill with a 30-second lead over the main peloton. The tough final climb to the finish up the Cauberg – a 1.5 kilometer ascent at an average gradient of 5.8 percent – was moved up in this year’s route as organizers tried to create a more open race. In the past, climbing specialists often waited until the short but steep ascent shortly before the finish line to make their move.

The seven breakaway riders worked well together and resisted the chasing peloton although Jose Joaquin Rojas did not take turns at the front. Kwiatkowski tried a solo move in the Bemelerberg, the last of the 35 climbs in the race, about 5.5 kilometers from the finish, but Gilbert countered his attack. The duo stayed together all the way to the finish where Gilbert proved the stronger.

“It was a hard final,” Gilbert said. “All of us deserved the win today because we really worked together … In the end with Kwiato we went hard, I saw the guys behind were on the limit. I was too but if you can find one or two percent more, it makes the difference. I told him: `We ride until the last kilometer and the best man wins.’ That’s the best deal you can make.”